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Boston sports teams aim to lead way against racism

Take the Lead initiative opens dialogue on race

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Boston sports teams aim to lead way against racism
State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry and NAACP Boston Branch president Tanisha Sullivan spoke during the Take the Lead event. They have been meeting with Red Sox leadership in the months since Orioles’ player Adam Jones and an anthem singer were made targets of racial slurs at Fenway Park. (Photo: COURTESY OF BOSTON RED SOX)

Boston wants to send a message against racism and leaders are turning to sports teams to do it. Representatives of Boston’s major teams gathered with community activists and elected officials at Fenway last week. There, they kicked off an initiative intended to encourage Bostonians to actively oppose any racism they encounter and spur the rest of the nation to do the same.

Author: BOSTON RED SOXSteve Burton (left) moderates a discussion. Second from left to right: former Red Sox player and coach Tommy Harper, Patriots player Andre Tippett, Boston Bruins Foundation executive director Bob Sweeney and radio broadcaster and former Celtics player Cedric Maxwell.

Author: BOSTON RED SOXTommy Harper recalls the discrimination he faced as a Red Sox player in the 1970s.

The event was the fruit of discussions launched after Red Sox fans directed racial slurs last May at Oriole’s player Adam Jones, as well as at a national anthem singer who is Kenyan. It comes at a time when national conversation rages over football player Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests against police brutality and other forms of oppression of people of color. Kaepernick’s protests have drawn admiration and ire — including a recent disparaging rebuke from the president. Sports stadiums also became an arena of conversation when several white demonstrators on Sept. 13 at Fenway Park unveiled a banner calling out America’s history of racism.

Last Thursday’s event, titled “Take the Lead,” was an opportunity to call attention to the history of racism in some of Boston’s teams, notably the Red Sox, which was the last major league team to integrate. Several players spoke during the event about the racism they encountered in Boston or warnings they received before moving to the city.

Still, many also say that while some problems persist, conditions have come a long way. The Take the Lead initiative is meant to ensure that conditions improve a lot more.

Conversation and bystander response

One important step is simply having open conversation, said event emcee Liz Walker, pastor of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church, who also was the first black woman to be a co-anchor on a Boston newscast. People run away from discussing racism, “even though racism always seems to fester under the surface in this country, ready to break free,” she said.

State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry added that it is critical for the city and state to acknowledge its history of racism, because that shapes how to move forward.

Solutions voiced during Thursday’s event focused on energizing bystanders to stand up against prejudice. The Take the Lead team unveiled a video to be played at Fenway, Gillette Stadium and TD Garden featuring Boston athletes, of color and white, telling fans to stand up against any acts of racism they encounter.

“If you hear something offensive or hateful, speak up. … I’m taking the lead and you can, too, in the fight against discrimination, racism and injustice,” players say in the video. “If we all stand together, hate falls behind.”

Mayor Martin Walsh, too, underscored the need for vocal public response to reject any witnessed racism. He joined others in saying such work needs to cover the whole city, not just its stadiums.

“If a person says something racist in a public setting, that reaction should be 100 times stronger,” Walsh said. “Take the Lead is a powerful message that everyone has a part to do in ending racism.”

As for institutions, Dorcena Forry and Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy said response to any incidents must be rapid. Kennedy said the race-based harassment of Jones and the racial slurs used at Fenway during the following night’s game, demonstrated how prevalent racism remains.

“You realize this isn’t a Boston thing, a Fenway thing. This is an American thing. This happens in malls, hotel lobbies, schools and hospitals,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to elevate and sustain this conversation as an organization.”

In May, the Red Sox issued a public apology to Jones and fans gave him a standing ovation on the following night’s game. That same night, a fan referred to the anthem singer with racial slur, and the Red Sox responded with the fan’s removal and his lifetime ban from Fenway Park.

Dave Hoffman, Celtics senior director of community engagement, said this year the team launched an ongoing program to have discussions and practice scenarios with youth about the need to stand up as a bystander and act, instead of hanging back. He said they aim to reach youth before they form conscious or unconscious biases. New England Revolution President Brian Billelo said his team seeks to have its players, many of whom are from other countries, connect with communities whose populations are very different from them.

Open and welcoming

To encourage more equitable access to hockey, Boston Bruins owner Charlie Jacobs said the team donates hockey equipment to youth who cannot afford it, understanding that there can be a high cost barrier to enter the sport. A moderator noted there is still a ways to go, with few people of color on the team.

Kennedy said all five sports teams will join together to offer scholarships for work experience on each team and do career fairs. He also said he supports Red Sox owner John Henry’s proposal to rename Yawkey Way so as to no longer honor the former team owner who resisted integrating the Red Sox.

Boston experiences

The Patriots’ Andre Tippet recalled friends warning him off Boston when he was drafted, due to its reputation as a racist city. While problems persist, that reputation has become less true today, Tippet said. He added that he strives to work to the highest standard to encourage the door being opened to others.

The Celtics’ Cedric Maxwell said that black people must go beyond, because they are subjected to harsher judgment. He recalled being mocked as a black broadcaster and the difficulty he experienced in finding people who looked like him in Boston, until he was taken to Roxbury and Dorchester. However, he noted that racial prejudice goes both ways and also that the Celtics were the first in the league to have a black player, then first to have a black head coach and first to have five black starters.

Tommy Harper, who played on the Red Sox in the 1970s, recalled discovering that only white players and staff received passes to the Elks Club during spring training in Winter Haven, Florida.

“Right from that point on, I knew I could never be part of a Red Sox nation,” Harper said. His complaints to management went unaddressed for years, until he answered a reporter’s question about the practice — for which Harper says the management fired him.

Still, when prompted, even Harper agreed that things have changed.

Protest and response

Kaepernick sparked debate when during the August 2016 pregame season he began taking a knee during the national anthem as a measure to call attention to police killings of black civilians and other oppression of people of color in the U.S. Kaepernick originally had sat during the anthem, but changed to kneeling when a Navy SEAL told him that would feel more respectful to veterans.

Since then, some, including President Trump, framed Kaepernick’s protest against racism as instead a statement against America and patriotism. The U.S. president said that the “son of a bitch” players who kneel should be fired or suspended, and fans should boycott games.

Following Trump’s comments, more teams took to knees, linked arms, raised fists or remained in locker rooms during the anthem, as they sought to craft a response or avoid engaging in the discussion. While some said their choices during the anthem reflected support for Kaepernick’s message, other said they intended to show support for free speech or rejection of Trump’s comments. A number of NFL team owners issued statements. Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration and arranged for Trump to be gifted with a Super Bowl LI ring, stated support of players’ ability to peacefully raise awareness for their concerns. In some games around the country, fans booed and chanted for players to stand. Kaepernick, meanwhile, remains unsigned.

In a video that accrued more than 250,000 Facebook shares by Tuesday morning, Nick Wright, co-host of the Fox Network’s “First Things First,” said that there was frequent media and public distortion of Kaepernick’s message, including conflating the timing of the protest during the national anthem playing with protest against the anthem itself.

“When people march, they are not protesting traffic,” Wright said. “The players have been uniform that they’re using the anthem as a vehicle to protest inequality, police brutality and racial injustice.” He questioned whether Kaepernick would still be labeled as disrespecting the flag if his protest had been not against mistreatment of black people, but against mistreatment of returning veterans.

Also this month, four people were removed from a game at Fenway Park after draping a banner over the Green Monster with the words, “Racism is as American as baseball.” One of the four said they were white anti-racist protestors seeking to remind white people in particular of the reality that racism is fundamental to American history and culture. One protester said the action was inspired by the mistreatment of Adam Jones last May. A number of fans booed the protestors, and some said they were unclear if the banner was for or against racism. The banner and protesters were removed for violation of a prohibition against hanging signs on the ballpark, and no arrests were made.

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